Educate to Elevate /ˈe-jə-ˌkāt tu̇ ˈe-lə-ˌvāt/ phrase. – 1. to provide information necessary for preparing individuals to develop the skill-sets needed for life and a career. 2. education that increases success in various social settings.
My name is Lauren. I am from St Louis, Missouri originally. I grew up in a military household — I was a Navy brat, my dad was Navy. So, for the first 10 to 12 years of my life, that was pretty much my life. I have been here, in Kansas City, for about 10 years now. Trying to enjoy it. Midwest living is interesting. Just the pace. Most people would say, Midwest pace is very slow. I would also say like the willingness to be open minded is very small here. I think before I had a child I would have been completely down for. But now that I have a child, it’s just wanting to give her and to show her there’s more to the world than just what Kansas City is. So that’s been like my struggle between like, Oh, midwest living is you know great, slow pace, to raise a child, and Oh my God, I have got to get out, sort of thing.
I’m also a teacher, so every day I get to interact with 75, 13 year old kids. That has pretty much been my life, education has taken hold of my life. It’s been like the foundation since those military days.
Beauty for me has been one of those things that I have struggled to identify. In my household growing up, my mother was very adamant about her daughters knowing what it was to be beautiful and what beauty meant as far as our skin color and our hair texture. But growing up in predominantly White schools, I struggled with finding my own definition of that. And it wasn’t until I graduated from high school that I truly looked at what beauty meant for me. So I spent a lot of time playing and experimenting with my hair and experimenting with my style. Doing, you know, what most women do at some point in our lives–we try to find our identity within those things. Not understanding that you make beauty. Beauty doesn’t define you, you define it.
Now that I have a daughter, and my daughter is biracial, that is also an interesting dichotomy. I have to be ever more intentional about what I teach her as far as what the definition of beauty is, letting her know that I can’t define that for you. I can only tell her that Your caramel skin is absolutely beautiful but next to mommie’s cocoa skin it’s even better.
When I think of Black beauty I think of the originators. We set the tone, we set the pace for the entire pop culture movement in this century. It’s also amazing to me to think about there is nothing new under the sun and anything that I can possibly think of from hairstyles to clothing to even slang in the vernacular, we have defined that. And it’s us defining it and then, you know, popular culture and society being like, Ah, it’s kind of strange, but then slowly adopting it. I have always found it interesting that Black culture, as a whole, we are often imitated and never duplicated. You can never duplicate the essence of what it means to be Black. It’s something that can’t be defined and it’s also something that cannot be duplicated.If only we would step into the power of that that holds, man, we would be doing things and going places.
My first couple of years of teaching–feeling as if I had to minimize what it meant to be a Black woman. And, I mean, that was also during the phase in my life that I was like, Oh, what does this mean? And Oh, microaggressions are real and How do I respond to these things?
Dealing with kids, and in predominantly White spaces, as Black women and especially as professional Black women…we are made to be meek and mild, but also to show our credentials. So I have to be willing to let people know like, Oh, hey, I really do have the credentials to do the job, but I have to be just a little more timid, just to be palatable.
Microaggressions are real and I think that as Black women our emotions are often policed. Our thoughts and ideas are often policed and we’re made to fit into this box of what society deems palatable. It’s a very hard box to step out of, especially in the professional world. It’s a hard box to step out of it if you are in an environment in which you don’t feel supported. So that, I think, would be the greatest societal pressure — How do you take your Blackness and carry it with you everywhere you go? Especially in spaces in which there might not be a majority of Blacks that occupy it or you might be the only one.
Growing up, like I said, I went to predominantly White schools my entire life. I remember being one of 45 Black kids and my school was 235, my graduating class was extremely small. And, just clear as day, I remember a teacher asking me, Oh my goodness, Lauren, how did you get your name? And I explained, my name came from, my grandfather his name was Lawrence and she asked me what my brother’s and my sister’s names were and I said, Rachel and Ryan and she said, Oh my gosh, who came up with those normal names? And as a child you don’t understand the context, but as an adult I get like, damn, microaggressions are real.
I remember being one of two Black kids in my AP English class. We read The Color Purple and my teacher immediately turned to myself and the other Black student and asked us for the Black narrative. And again, as a child, you don’t understand that. But as an adult I was back and I think, Oh, that’s what that was. It makes me ever cognizant of the fact that I teach Black and Brown bodies and I cannot have my students thinking that you represent the entirety of your race outside of these four walls. Like, no, that’s not going to happen. So that was my experience with education and being a Black girl and not feeling as if I was smart enough.
Or that if I was smart, it was an anomaly, I was a freak of nature for how intelligent I was. Like, you know, my hair, feeling as if it’s kinky naps weren’t enough, because the rest of the Black girls in my school, everybody had a relaxer. And when I would wear my hair naturally, I would have White girls come and try to touch it or ask me questions. And just not understanding how to navigate those waters.
We are the backbone I saw that shirt that’s like flashing on Instagram like all the time. Black women are the most disrespected group on the planet. We are. We are the very essence of what it means to hold shit together. We go through life every day, and again this isn’t to diminish the narrative of a Black man because I don’t know what it’s like to walk in your shoes. But I do know that as Black women we are, almost from the cradle, groomed to believe You hold everything together. You are a man’s safety and his refuge and we’re taught to just pour unmercifully and unforgivingly into others. And yet, how do we get that poured back into ourselves? We navigate professional worlds, we navigate so many different narratives and dichotomies every day, yet we are not cared for in a way that I believe we should be. And without us, man, no one can do anything. No one can do anything. It amazes me, the power that we have. It would just be great if that power were cultivated. And honestly, I believe that it is, but it’s becoming cultivated by us. We are now having to say, If there isn’t going to be anyone to pour into us, we now have to pour into ourselves. And that can be looked at as both a positive and a negative. But yeah, we’re the innovators.
Because we always have been. It’s natural to take something for granted that has always been available. And I think that especially with media influences and lack of art, the lack of representation for us. For a long time, I don’t think we were palatable enough. You had to be a certain shade and have a specific hair grade in order to be Black and on television. And even if that, you were kept within the confines as what was acceptable at the time. But I look at people like Issa Rae and a gaggle of other Black women who are now becoming entrepreneurs and filmmakers and screenwriters…We are now stepping up and saying that palatable or not, you are going to get this Black girl magic today. You just are. And, I think like back to my original point, we’ve just always been there. So it’s natural to take us for granted. But now that we understand like, Oh, there actually is an amount of power that’s held with being the backbone. I think you’re gonna start to see a lot more people have a willingness to say, Okay, I need to hear this Black woman. And even if you’re not willing, that Black woman is going to think, I will be heard.
The impact that I have within the classroom. I think teaching, as cliche as it sounds, is probably one of my greatest joys and passion. And the fact that I teach where I teach…I just love us. I love everything about Black culture and who we are, where we’ve come from. So for me, I’m an English teacher, so being able to work with kids and get them to the point where I am not telling their story, they are telling their stories. It’s an absolutely amazing feeling.
I think had you asked me that question maybe 10 years ago, I would’ve said it’s entirely frustrating and it’s tiresome. More than anything it’s tiresome.
Fast forward, and I’ve almost gotten militant with my commitment to let people know, It is not my job to educate you. It is not my job to speak on behalf of the entire Black community. We are not a monolith. I will quickly let people know, If you are that interested in the issues that plague my community or other marginalized communities, it’s your job to educate yourself. And I can point you to websites. I can point you to rallies and people and get you connected. But for you to ask me to speak on behalf of every person, every child, who looks like me.. No, I’m not going to be able to do that for you.
Educate yourself, especially. I remember I had a teacher ask me, Well, why do Black girls here change their hair so often? And, first I felt enraged because I just say it’s not going to go. Mechanisms immediately came up. Then I had to turn to her and say, You know, partially it’s a celebration. And have you thought to maybe ask? I would suggest that. But I’ve realized, the older that I’ve gotten…I cannot, nor do I represent an entire community. That’s marginalizing us even further in my opinion. So now I’m quick to let someone know, No, we’re not gonna do that.
In a perfect world I would have my own little school open. With a lot of like-minded, socially motivated, Black teachers. But I would love to write curriculum for schools, as far as culturally responsive pedagogy is concerned. That is one of my dreams.
It’s almost as if culturally responsive pedagogy is the latest buzzword in education. And there are so many people who have the right intentions, i.e. Dr. Carpenter with the Lee’s Summit School district, but there are not enough people who are really willing to do the work. There are a lot of people who are willing to say, Oh my God, culturally responsive pedagogy. It’s what we need, what’s best for our kids, what’s best for teachers. But when you really start to dig deep into what culturally responsive pedagogy is, it forces you to look at your own biases and a lot of people aren’t ready to turn that mirror inward. So I think that is one of the foundational issues. The unwillingness to take a look at yourself and acknowledge that as human beings we all carry biases. Whether they are implicit or not, we all have them. But you have to be able to face them if you are going to teach students who do not look like you. So I think that would be one of the foundational issues.
I think there are plenty of them. The first that comes to mind is police brutality. And, within our school districts the seemingly unwillingness to take a look at those culturally responsive practices that we need for our kids. But then also, it’s almost about the erasure of an entire narrative. I wish that people understood that we do not need others to speak our narratives. We have the power to do that. In fact, like I said earlier, anything that we do as a community, it immediately becomes pop culture, from the things that we say, to the way we style our hair, the way dress. And so if we have that much “buying power” we don’t need another platform or another group to tell our stories. The irony in that is that we first have to believe that we have that buying power. So for us, I think like if I were to tell the majority group like, Hey, this is an issue that we have, itt would be, Stop thinking as if we need you to tell our stories. We have a ton of them. We can do that.
A more accepting place. But my ultimate dream for society is that society turns that mirror within itself and on itself. And I think that when that happens, it’s going to cause a revolution. Honestly.
I think we continue to speak their narratives. We continue to speak the truth. Even in the most daunting moments when you feel as if it’s going unheard, the message is going unheard. I mean, how many more times do we have to scream, Black Lives Matter? How many more times do I have to tell stakeholders, My Black and Brown babies matter? I mean, it’s tiring. But it’s also what’s necessary in order to affect change. Not backing down and not conforming and not taking no for an answer. I mean, I’ve jokingly said that, you know, I’ve become a lot more militant the older I’ve gotten, but it’s almost true. It’s just necessary because society is not just going to one day wake up and say, Oh my God, 400 years of oppression and marginalization. We’re sorry. No, that’s not going to happen because if it would’ve happened, it would’ve happened by now. And so I think we have to continue to press forward and continue to tell these stories and continue to say, We are going to continue to tell these stories, whether they’re palatable to you or not, whether you like them or not.
The thing that keeps me going though is, I look at my kids, I look every day at these kids and think, What the hell happens to you all if we don’t continue? if we don’t continue to fight, if we don’t continue to speak up, if we don’t continue to tell these stories, what happens to you all? And especially for my kids, because the majority of my kids have no point of reference for “The Movement”. Not even the civil rights movement, do they have a point of reference for that. And so, as cliche as it may sound, I truly do look at them as the future and they are Black and Brown bodies. And I think to myself, if we do not continue to speak up every time we’re marginalized, to speak up every time we are placed into this like conforming box, what happens to my kids? Especially my Black boys, what happens to them?
It’s interesting, the first time I told my kids where I lived they were like, Ms. Jenkins, are you serious? I live off of 60th and Paseo and they were like, We just thought you would’ve lived in like Lee’s Summit or Blue Springs or someplace fancy like that. And it opened up the conversation for, Why do I have to? Why does success have to be equated with moving and living outside of the very people who look like you? And so everyday I try to tell my kids, If you choose to stay in the “hood”, there is nothing wrong with that. There’s a sense of pride that has to come along with your community. Everything you do and everything you give has to go back there. It isn’t your job to, to become successful and basically say, deuces. And don’t get me wrong or misunderstand me, for those people who have, they made the choice that was best for them.
But I also want to present and challenge my students to have the other side of that narrative. There are people who are becoming successful and leaving…What happens to the people who are just as successful but they choose to stay? And that’s something that my kids have never been presented with. That you can be successful and choose to stay in the hood. It isn’t an either-or thing. It’s a but-and thing. And so that is what I tried to teach them. That everything you do, it has to flow back. You have a responsibility to reach back, to give back and to make it better. If you don’t like what your neighbor looks like, then get out there and do something about it. There’s trash on the street?
Okay, well, why are you waiting for someone else to pick it up? This is your community. You have to take pride in this before anyone else will. And so I hope that that’s the message that my kids walk away with when they see other Blacks, and not just other Black professionals, but other Blacks in general. To know that, Oh, you make a choice. I choose to live where I live. I choose to teach where I teach. There was a reason why. And it isn’t some sanctimonious, self-righteous thing. No. It is because I have a responsibility to those who look like me and those who might not even look like me but are still marginalized like I am. I have a responsibility. But first and foremost the responsibility to those Black babies. So hopefully that’s what they walk away with.
Continue to love yourself. Self love is the greatest love because this work is daunting. The world that we live in…it can be cruel. And you know the intersectionality of what Black means, like being Black and queer and being Black and trans…it’s so easy to feel as if you just fade.And that you’re not seen. But beyond self love, I would just say, I see you. I see you, I’m here. The marathon continues. It really does.
I feel as if oftentimes you’ll meet White people who are afraid to seek out that information. It could’ve been that they’ve had run ins with other Blacks that were like, Hey, I’m not the representative, but I’m just angry and I’m going to let you know that. Or maybe they felt that they wouldn’t be received very well if they would ask. For me, I try to seek to understand. So if you come to me and ask me, Well, why are things done this way? Or, what’s your opinion on this? I can say, Hey, this is my opinion about something. If you are curious to know, then here’s where you can go, in a… I hate to say non-confrontational… because to be perfectly honest, whether or not I am confrontational about you getting the information that you need… I don’t feel as if I have to take my emotions out of it. I’ve learned to take my emotions out of it and I’m not even sure if, now saying it, that’s a good or a bad thing.
But, I think the information that needs to be gathered is just understanding. A basic understanding of an entire group of people who’ve been marginalized, ostracized. Who’ve had their cultures stolen from them through misappropriation, through a lot of other factors. And yet we’re here and thriving and growing. And we seem to be the topic of discussion on everyone’s list. So, I think for me, coming from that perspective has been helpful. But I’m not even sure if that’s the right way to do it.
Educate yourself. From the music that you listen to, to the way you style your hair. It’s very easy to attribute those things to your community because that’s the community that is readily seen. But have you ever wondered why? And it’s okay to ask those questions. And if you don’t feel “safe” with asking them, find someone in which you do feel safe. Or go out on your own and decide, You know what, I’m going to get this information for myself. But to acknowledge, Yeah, an entire group of people did that and you continued to benefit from that. I would say that is my greatest piece of advice. Recognize your privilege. Continue to ask those questions and continue to pass the microphone. Pass the microphone, sometimes it’s okay to sit back and listen rather than to be quick to speak.
Interview Date: November 26, 2019
Day 11 — Story posted on February 10, 2020
Lauren’s sister is also featured on Pick Progress: Read Rachel’s interview